Missoula airport fears “drastic and negative impact” of proposed jet fuel legislation

Ground crews at Missoula International Airport prepare an outgoing flight on a summer day in 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Montana’s seven largest airports, including Missoula International, are opposing several bills in the 2019 Legislature that would target the state’s largest airports in an effort to boost small general aviation airfields.

On Tuesday, airport officials in Missoula briefed the Missoula County Airport Authority on two bills in particular that would have a “drastic and negative impact” on air service development in Missoula and the state’s six other large commercial airports.

Among them, the state’s commercial airports are watching House Bill 81, which would eliminate the current rebate of 2 cents per gallon for jet fuel. Airlines that serve Montana airports can apply for the rebate to compensate for long commercial routes to and from Montana cities.

Missoula airport director Cris Jensen said the rebate helps the airport compete for flights against other cities in the country when an airline looks at the total cost of providing service.

“We’re a long distance away from most of the markets in the system, so our costs are generally higher because of the time frame it takes to fly from Minneapolis, Denver, Atlanta or Chicago to Missoula,” Jensen said. “That airplane is less productive. It can haul less passengers on a daily basis because of the distance involved.”

As proposed by Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, the funds generated by eliminating the rebate would support Montana Aeronautics and capital improvement projects at small, noncommercial airfields.

The state’s seven large commercial airports oppose the measure, saying it could hurt air service across the state.

“We just don’t feel it’s fair to divert funds from air carriers to small airports elsewhere in the state where the airlines will never benefit,” Jensen said. “Anything that increases the cost to an airline to provide service here in our state will make us less competitive on a national level.”

Businesses across Missoula, joined by the Missoula Economic Partnership and Missoula International, have pushed over the past five years to increase air service in Missoula, in part by providing a revenue guarantee collected from private donors.

Doing so has been deemed an economic development tool and has been met with success. Missoula last year set an all-time passenger record, has seen ticket prices fall, and has landed new service, including flights to Dallas and Los Angeles.

But the new legislation could take those efforts back and potentially eliminate any gains made in recent years. A second bill also proposes an increase in jet fuel taxes from 4 cents to 14 cents per gallon.

It too would go to small noncommercial airfields to the detriment, opponents contend, of the state’s large commercial airports.

“I believe this increase would have a drastic and negative impact on air service development,” Jensen said. “We’re still early in the legislative session and there may be other bills that are proposed that could affect airports.”